Friends! ONE WEEK FROM TODAY is the big day! Queen of the Wild Range will launch on Tuesday, July 12, and it still seems a little unreal. To celebrate, I’m releasing one chapter every day this week! (Spoiler alert: read Book 1, Kingdom Above the Cloud, before reading these chapters!).
Want to help spread the word? Send a link to my website (maggieplatt.com) to someone who you think would enjoy the book. They can get a taste of it with the first 7 chapters for free as we count down this week!
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Without further ado, welcome back to the Tales from Adia!
Queen of the Wild Range, Chapter 1
Torches hissed and sputtered in the damp air as King Damien walked the long stone corridor between dungeon cells. Traitors and criminals cowered in corners behind rusted bars, illuminated by the flickering light. He considered each prisoner in turn, but none so far would do. Too strong. Too valuable. Too sneaky.
Near the end of the corridor, he came to a frail old woman, mumbling to herself and picking at her fingers. She kept her eyes trained on the floor, and her shoulders curled inward when the king moved closer.
She was perfect.
“Sweet lady, what is your name?”
She fell silent and looked up through stringy, lavender hair.
“I need a favor, my dear. You’re going to come with me. But first I would like to know your name.”
“Is-Is-Ismene, sir. My name’s Ismene. Don’t s’pose I’d be much help.”
“Come, anyway.” He did his best to smile, but her foul stench and uneducated tongue were hard to bear.
The big, rusty key screeched as it turned. Ismene held the bars to pull herself off the ground on wobbly knees. She joined the king, looking back at her cell several times. Guards shut the door behind her and followed the king and his prisoner up the stairs and out of the palace.
Out in the crisp night air, a golden litter waited with enough room to comfortably seat two. “In you go,” Damien said, holding out his hand to help Ismene inside. She looked from his hand to his face several times before he realized she did not know what to do. “Hold my hand for balance and step inside. You’re quite safe.”
Once situated, eight guards lifted the litter by its poles and carried it across the courtyard, past the opulent homes of the most elite families. Passing under a stone arch, they traveled through the streets. Ismene never took her face from the window, her eyes wide and shining, reflecting the candlelight pouring from each home.
With each passing block, the homes, shops, and taverns grew shabbier. Still, Ismene did not look away. Damien briefly wondered how long she had been inside the dungeon with no view of the outside world, but he did not care enough to ask.
They reached the Bottom Rung, the poorest neighborhood in the kingdom. It was also the lowest in elevation, making it the closest zone to the mines, farms, and hard labor.
They stopped and disembarked at the shimmering curtain of light that extended all the way around the mountain. It was taller than any of their buildings, and it seemed to be made of light, like the little rainbows that danced on walls when light hit a diamond. When his guards tried to cross through this curtain of light, they were blocked by something invisible that they described as cold, hard glass.
Damien clenched his jaw as he surveyed the barrier that mocked him and his powerlessness. He dare not touch it. He didn’t want anyone to witness his failure.
He had a theory about the properties of the wall, and he had brought Ismene there to test it. According to the guards who had witnessed Adwin’s death, this curtain had sprung out of Adwin when those fools tried to kill him. It was Adwin’s very own life force, hemming Damien inside this kingdom-turned-prison. The man’s body might have disappeared, but that was likely temporary. He knew Adwin too well to believe he was really gone. Adwin had left his spirit surrounding the mountain, and that just might be as bad as having him there in the flesh.
He noticed pain in his jaw and willed his muscles to unclench, rolling his neck without taking his eyes from the curtain.
What was Adwin’s plan? What was the purpose of this wall? To keep Damien’s forces inside? To protect innocent, little Adia from his invasions? Perhaps. More likely, it was to buy time so that Damien’s grandchildren could assemble their army and return, fulfilling the dreaded prophecy on his throne room walls.
He gritted his teeth again. His people were disappearing in droves. Empty homes. Deserted businesses. He suspected they had found a way through the curtain, just as Eryx had. Was this Adwin’s doing? Where was he taking them? He clenched his fists so tightly that the seams of his gloves nearly ripped. Before long, his enemy would have plenty of these peasants to form an army. He had to do something to stop them, but first, he must understand the properties of the wall.
“Ismene, show us your hands.”
She did as she was told. Damien scowled at the brown heart that curved across her scarred and wrinkled palm.
“Very good. Now, walk through the light.”
She looked between him and the wall several times.
He nodded and repeated, “Walk through the light.”
Ismene swallowed hard, and her mouth twitched. She took slow, hesitant steps toward the curtain with her arms out in front of her.
Her fingers pierced the light, and she looked back at him with wide eyes. She took another step, and the curtain was at her elbows. A few more steps, and she was on the other side of the barrier, looking at him through the shimmering waves.
“Just what I thought,” King Damien said, shaking his head and clicking his tongue. “My own invention. My own creation. I should have known Adwin would use those hearts against me. You can come back now, Ismene.”
Damien was inside the litter before he realized Ismene had not followed him. She stood on the other side of the curtain, staring at him, her mouth moving like she wanted to say something, but no words came out.
“Come now, Ismene. It is time to go back.”
She backed up two steps.
“Come back this instant, Ismene,” Damien commanded, stepping out of the litter.
She hobbled into the darkness, looking over her shoulder every few steps. The guards tried to follow but hit the curtain with a loud thud. No matter how hard they shoved their shoulders into the barrier, it held firm. One used both hands to slam a sword into the curtain, and it clattered to the ground as the guard yelped.
Damien pursed his lips and drew in a deep breath. “No matter,” he said, willing his tone to be calm. “It’s why I chose a weak prisoner for this experiment. She has no value here or anywhere else.”
He returned to the litter and rubbed his temples. He must come up with a plan to stop the hearts from escaping. They were too important to his kingdom. Too important to his system. Without them, the city’s trade would grind to a halt. There wouldn’t be enough workers, servants, or soldiers.
He looked out the little window at the houses along the street, but he hardly saw them. He had too many goals, too many objectives, vying for his attention. He must keep the hearts on the mountain to keep the great system working. He must recruit new members of the Council of Masters, which had been so recently decimated. He must find his grandchildren and stop them from fulfilling the prophecy of his kingdom’s demise. And he must stop Adwin from winning. That would always be the chief objective.
When they reached the palace, Damien hurried to his library. He spread a large map across his enormous table in the center of the room, smoothing it with his hands. Mount Damien took up the center, and sloping lands spread out to the edges in blotches of greens and browns. Adia lay to the west. Most of the other territories were unexplored and nameless.
He traced Adwin’s barrier, the curtain that separated his city from the rest of the world, with his finger. He felt so powerless and so trapped, but he knew the secret now. It was that heart that would get people through—the heart emblazoned on so many palms, the heart he himself had invented as a young apprentice to Adwin.
Another barrier existed but did not appear on the map. Since the beginning of his reign, a thin layer of cloud had swirled around the mountain, keeping Adia and the surrounding lands out of view. That cloud was another of his own inventions, created with the powers Adwin soon after took away from him. Damien didn’t want his people to see their options for life outside of his city. He needed them to stay on the mountain, playing their part in his grand machine.
He believed that if he could just keep his people within the confines of the city, he could mold them into just what he wanted and needed: a people devoted to him and his power. They were all born with a natural pull toward the former ways of King Adwin, but all they needed was time with good teachers to break them of that habit.
Now he faced a new difficulty. This shimmering curtain lay inside the city, above the cloud. The cloud kept his people from seeing a different way of life. Now, no matter where someone went in the city, the wall of light rose above the buildings, beckoning his people toward questions with dangerous answers. “Where did this curtain come from? Is it true it sprang from King Adwin himself? Is there something better on the other side?”
The solution was obvious to him. A third ring must be constructed within the city. A wall of stone, rather than wisps of cloud or waves of light. Cold rock and mortar would hold his people inside, giving him time to change their hearts and pledge their fealty to King Damien alone. It would also stop his grandchildren and their prophesied armies from entering his kingdom. Yes, a new, glorious, terrifying wall was just the thing.
A tap on the door and the squeak of hinges made him look up. One of his most prized weapons stepped inside his sanctuary. Her yellow eyes were dull and rimmed in red. Her usual dark makeup—usually so perfect—was a tad smudged.
Rhaxma took a seat in a cushioned chair by the fire and stared at the flames. She didn’t turn at the sound of Damien’s approach, so he took his time filling two glass goblets with dark red wine. She only glanced toward him when he held the drink in front of her.
He sat in the opposite chair, crossed his leg, and swirled the liquid around his glass. “I could ask how you’re feeling. I could let you fall apart and cry over your beloved brother. But you’re stronger than that. You aren’t a weepy damsel needing a grandfatherly pat on the head. You are brilliant, fierce, and cunning. And I need you.”
She wiped her cheeks with her gloved fingers, but there were still black tears pooling along her eyelids. She took a long gulp of wine before looking at the king.
He continued. “I know you hate Calix. I don’t blame you, after what happened. But can you put that aside? Can you keep your control and composure? Can you remain on the Council of Masters?”
“You would remove me from the council?”
Damien took another sip. “I don’t see any other way if you can’t get along.”
“Remove him. He killed my brother. He should be hanging in the courtyard by now.”
“Now, now. We can’t cast blame. You know I have listened to all witnesses and ruled Leeto’s death a terrible accident.”
Rhaxma’s lip curled, and she turned back toward the fire.
“My dear Rhaxma, you are showing me that you are not cut out for this work anymore. Must I replace you, along with the others?”
“What happens if I leave the council?”
“I see only two options, really,” the king drawled. “You could leave your home on the courtyard to make room for a new Master of Perfection, or you could go to the dungeon with the others who displease me.”
“Leave the courtyard? What about my family? My grandfather is your closest friend. My father is practically your son. You wouldn’t do that to us.”
“Wouldn’t I? Have you ever seen me give up easily when there is something I want?”
“And what exactly do you want from me?”
“I want you to wield your influence and help me win this war with Adwin. I want you to put this unfortunate incident behind you and remain my Master of Perfection.”
“Unfortunate incident?” Rhaxma’s laugh was quiet, high-pitched, unhinged.
King Damien set down his goblet. Her behavior was concerning but not shocking. Grief, where there had been real love, was a mighty, unpredictable force. “Can you do this? Can you hold yourself together and work with Calix and the rest of the council?”
Rhaxma traced the rim of her goblet with her gloved finger, leaving a red stain on the silver fabric. “Yes,” she whispered.
Another knock on the door told him that the rest of the remaining council had arrived. He stood, walked to the table and map, and called for the weapons. They joined him at the table.
There should have been seven, but betrayals had whittled the group to four. In private, he had flipped tables, shattered priceless vases, and thrown ink wells at the walls. In the presence of his young weapons, he had to keep his composure if he wanted to overcome so much death and treason. He would have to let the rage boil and sputter but not overflow. He closed his eyes for just a moment and willed his temper back into its cage. Control. Power. Wisdom. He must draw on these great virtues in this time of terrible uncertainty.
He placed four gray tokens on the map, right over the heart of the kingdom. Each had a symbol drawn on it, mirroring the symbols displayed on their backs.
First, a crown for Calix, Master of Adoration. Fury still burned in his eyes—or was that humiliation? To bring an Adian to the mountain, ignorant that she was an heir to His Majesty, ignorant that she had already been marked by a competitor—that was enough to make anyone feel like a fool. But to lose her back to Adwin? Calix would never forgive himself.
Second, chains for Megara, Master of Wisdom. She was even thinner than usual, looking so brittle and boney that he wouldn’t be surprised if her joints failed and she crumbled to the floor. Her cheeks were hollow, and she looked more like a skeleton every day.
Third, a diamond for BiBi, Master of Prosperity. With her round face and dimples when she smiled, she looked angelic and sweet but so very sad. She was not tough like the others, and all of the recent events had been difficult for her. Damien liked that about her. It was useful. Of all the people in the room, she was the one the fools in Adia would trust. He just had to find a way to get her there, now that the curtain hemmed them in.
Fourth, a set of scales for Rhaxma, his grief-stricken Master of Perfection. She stood at one end of the table, directly across from Calix. Her gaze was locked on him with a dullness that was perhaps more terrifying than if her hatred was raving and out of control.
Calix did not look Rhaxma’s way. He was focused on his king. Such a good boy.
Damien produced three more gray tokens. Rose. Flames. Snake. Rhaxma choked on a whimper, and he saw that her tears had spilled over. “It is time to replace our fallen member and the others who have betrayed us. But we will get to that in due time.
“Here you are,” Damien said, motioning to the first four tokens with their symbols. “And here they are.” He pulled four trinkets from his pocket. “Tovi is likely in Adia.” He placed a gold brooch shaped like a flower in the green area to the west. The stem was inlaid with emeralds, and the bloom was made of light blue stones. He placed the other three items on the edge of the map: a thick copper ring with a dark ruby embedded in it, a little girl’s golden locket with tiny amethysts around the edge, and a large, dark sapphire without a setting. He moved the sapphire to the north of the mountain. “The last we knew, Tali was in the caves to the north. Jairus can’t be far. We do not know if Lena lives.” He touched the ring and locket as he spoke of them, but he didn’t move them onto the map.
He traced the thin line once more with his quill. “This curtain holds us in. It is an evil barrier, a wall that keeps us from food, water, and victory. It is Adwin’s very own life, laying siege to those loyal to me while allowing the weakest to flee from their responsibilities and work.”
The four weapons leaned toward him and the map, listening intently. Good. He needed their full attention.
“It holds us in,” he said. “But not everyone. And I know how to get through.”
“Your Majesty,” Calix said, eyes wide. “What is the secret?”
He kept his voice nonchalant. “My own invention, actually. My great enemy, Adwin, has turned it against me. The foul heart that hides beneath so many gloves allows a person through the barrier. We must stop the flow of deserters. We shall build a wall.”
The room was quiet except for the dull roar and occasional crack from the fire in the hearth. Damien had expected excited gasps or at least a few nods of approval. Instead, their faces were mostly blank, with a few incredulous eyebrows raised.
“A wall, Your Majesty?” BiBi asked. “Isn’t there already a wall?”
Damien pointed to the thin line on the map. “Not the curtain. Not the shimmering waves of dark magic. I want a real wall. Stone and metal and mortar that will keep our people in and our enemies out.” He used his finger to draw another ring on the map, just inside the other.
“I have assignments for each of you, and our success depends on your dedication to these tasks. I want you to work together toward our overall goals, but each of you will take point on one of the projects.
“Megara, you will take charge of the defense. Set up patrols along the curtain. No one gets in or out. You must stop the flow of desertion. Those trying to escape go to the dungeon. Anyone trying to enter should be brought straight to me.”
“Calix, you will organize a census and assign duties. We need to know which laborers have a heart and which do not. We’ll send those with hearts through the curtain and below the cloud to mine, hunt, cart water, and tend the fields—under careful supervision, of course. Those without a heart will work here in the city, join Megara’s defense, or build the wall. Start with the Bottom Rung. There should be plenty for our purposes among the most expendable of our people.”
“Couldn’t we just outlaw gloves?” Megara asked. “It would be easier to identify—”
“No, no, no, dear girl,” he interrupted firmly. He had been prepared for that argument, and he knew he must squash it. “That would cause panic, chaos, mayhem. Better to surprise the Bottom Rung with hand checks and leave everyone else alone.”
She nodded, but her frown told him that she wasn’t convinced.
“BiBi, you will study the mural. I have not let new eyes examine the old prophecies in quite some time, and I think you are the person to bring me fresh insight. You will look for any clue, any sign, of Adwin’s next move or how he is leading so many to escape. We must stop him.”
She swallowed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Rhaxma, you will find a discreet way to search among the elite for a few with hearts who are still loyal to me. I need a few I trust to supervise the groups that will travel through the curtain to work. This will be tricky, but I think you are up for it. They must still have the heart yet remain loyal to me.”
She nodded. He noted the sweat on her brow. She was nervous about this task. He couldn’t decide if this was good or bad.
“All of you will bring candidate names to me for our three open council seats. We need a new Master of Pleasure, Master of Power, and Master of Control. I want the names delivered to me by tomorrow evening for my consideration.”
There was a chorus of assent.
“Good. Now go get some sleep. We need to be rested and ready to take on what tomorrow brings.”